/ Meditations

What is Philosophy?

When you first hear the word philosophy, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of an old college professor, lecturing students who are barely able to stay awake? What about long dry academic papers that hardly anyone is able to understand? Or maybe you think of the big questions, such as "What is the meaning of life?" that nobody really seems to have the answers to. A lot of us probably see philosophy as merely an exercise in contemplation, with no real impact on how we live our lives. This is how I used to conceive of philosophy.

But in the past few years, my impressions of philosophy and what it means have changed. Now, philosophy is not merely a theoretical exercise for me, but a way of life.

Philosophy asks me every day if what I am doing is right. It challenges me to make sure that I have good reasons for what I think and believe. It makes me ask myself what a good life consists of. It tells me to not blindly accept what is presented to me by the society and culture of my time. It keeps me alert, asking that I pay attention to what is going on around me, to closely analyze what others say, to criticize faulty logic, bad information, and poor judgment. It tells me to be humble in my opinions, to always leave a little room for doubt, and to change my views when presented with better reasoning and arguments. It tells me that this way of life is not easy, but that it is probably worth it.

So what changed? How did I go from thinking of philosophy as a mere exercise in contemplation, to a way of living? The answer is pretty simple. One day I just started asking myself questions, the types of questions I didn't have any good answers to. Questions such as, What does it mean to live a good life? How does one go about making sure they have good reasons to believe in something? What do the words right and wrong, good and evil, actually mean?

To answer these questions I started thinking and reading. Eventually, after a lot of searching, I stumbled across a new book, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. What this Roman Emperor wrote in his own philosophical diary, not meant for the eyes of any other soul, truly resonated with me. That is the moment, over three years ago, that I decided to take another look at philosophy.

I discovered that Marcus belonged to a school of Ancient Greek & Roman philosophy called Stoicism, and that it was part of a lineage of philosophies which traced itself all the way back to Socrates. I found that we had writings from other prominent Stoics who lived around the same time as well, such as Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca. What did all of these men have to say about philosophy?

Look now, this is the starting point of philosophy: the recognition that different people have conflicting opinions, the rejection of mere opinion so that it comes to be viewed with mistrust, and investigation of opinion to determine whether it is rightly held, and the discovery of a standard of judgment, comparable to the balance that we have devised for the determining of weights, or the carpenter's rule for determining whether things are straight or crooked. - Epictetus, Discourses 2.11.13

If you had a stepmother and a mother at the same time, you would fulfill you obligations to your stepmother, but for all that you would be constantly returning to your mother; and that is your present situation with regard to the court and philosophy. So return to philosophy as often as you can, and take your rest in her; for it is through her that life at court seems bearable to you, and you bearable to your court. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.12

Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live. For it's not just their own lifetime that they watch over carefully, but they annex every age into their own; all the years that have gone before are added to their own. Unless we prove most ungrateful, those most distinguished founders of hallowed thought came into being for us, and for us they prepared a way of living. We are left by the work of others into the presence of the most beautiful of treasures, which have been pulled from darkness and out to light. From no age are we debarred, we have access to all; and if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over. We can debate with Socrates, entertain doubt with Carneades, be at peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoic, and go beyond it with the Cynics. Since nature allows us shared possession of any age, why not turn from this short and fleeting passage of time and give ourselves over completely to the past, which is measureless and eternal and shared with our betters? - Seneca, On the Shortness of Life 14.1

Musonius Rufus was in the habit of saying,[...] a philosopher's school, man, is a doctor's surgery. You shouldn't leave after having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain. For you weren't in good health when you came in; no, one of you had a dislocated shoulder, and another an abscess, another a headache... - Epictetus, Discourses 3.23.29

And even though he wasn't necessarily a Stoic, I'll throw in some Cicero as well

Now that we have determined the cause of these disturbances of the mind - that they all arise form judgments based on opinion, and by choice - let there be an end to this discussion. Besides, now that the boundaries of good and evil have been discovered so far as they are discoverable by man, we ought to to realize that nothing can be hoped from philosophy greater or more useful than what we have been discussing for the last four days. For besides instilling a proper contempt for death, and making pain bearable, we have added the calming of grief, as great as any evil know to mankind... For there is one cure for grief and other ills, and it is the same. They are all matters of opinion, and taken up voluntarily because it seems right to do so. This error, as the root of all evils, philosophy promises to eradicate utterly. Let us therefore devote ourselves to its cultivation and submit to being cured; for so long as these evils possess us, not only can we not be happy, we cannot even be right in our minds. - Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.38

That is quite a lot for philosophy to live up to. But the more I read what these philosophers have to say, the more I am convinced that they are on to something. It is true that there is a huge theoretical and academic component to philosophy, which one can argue is beneficial in it's own way. But for me, this is the value I find in philosophy, in asking how to live, and that is no little thing, but perhaps, the most important thing.